Plasma Power; Is Fusion Our Future?
Background Information and Research Question/Problem
The crucial component in our Universe is energy. Energy is what keeps civilizations running. On Earth, we have many types of resources, which can be summed up into renewables and non-renewables. I am considering nuclear energy as its own type of energy since it has its own unique properties. Fusion energy, which is what our Sun is using to provide us with its warm UV rays, is highly theoretical, which some say can provide us with an endless, carbon-free source of power. Below are the pros and cons of each type of energy:
Type of energy
Renewable energy includes solar, wind, and hydropower. These are sources that can be renewed, meaning that they won’t run out. They aren’t efficient enough to power the world currently.
Non-renewables include oil, coal, and gas. They contain the stored energy of prehistoric organisms. They only last for a certain period of time, and they take millions of years to replenish (form new fossils).
Nuclear energy involves splitting the nucleus of an atom to create energy. Although effective, it produces radioactive waste, which requires extremely careful measures to dispose of.
Fusion energy uses nuclear fusion using plasma. The plasma reaches high enough temperatures to rip atoms apart and fuse them into heavier elements. Such as hydrogen to helium. It is currently experimental, and not commercially available.
As you can see, each source of energy has its own benefits and disadvantages, but there are a couple of main problems that are plaguing us. Non-renewables, which are coal, oil, and gas are running the world's economy, as the easiest and most reliable source of energy currently. The energy from prehistoric plants and animals, or fossils, is what provides us with easy energy. It is also the main contributor to climate change and global warming, slowly killing us by releasing chemicals into our atmosphere. One of the biggest problems with fossil fuels or non-renewables is that they won't last forever though. With current usage, they will last us for 100 years, but with the growing energy demand, development, and population growth, it could be even less. Fossil fuels take millions of years to form, so we can't hope to replenish our supplies.
Renewables seem like the ultimate eco-friendly option, which they are. Wind, sunlight, and water will last us literally forever, which is why they are called renewables. Although the technology and infrastructure needed for renewables are available to us, it simply isn't efficient for us to rely 100% on it. Sunlight and wind are weather-reliant on weather, so cloudy or calm days can leave us without energy for days. Even if we wanted to store the energy previously made, currently there isn't an effective method of storing the energy for the long term. Near the equator, sunlight is readily available for much of the year, but near the poles, there is virtually no sunlight for a portion of the year, so transporting the energy from another location is crucial. Although very environmentally friendly, it just isn't efficient enough to power our growing world.
While nuclear fission energy seems like a great alternative, it has significant drawbacks too. Nuclear energy is produced by splitting the nucleus of an atom, which gives us tremendous amounts of energy. Although it is quite sustainable, it produces radioactive waste, such as plutonium. Plutonium takes thousands of years to lose its harmful properties, so it requires very careful storage, away from civilization. Disasters like the Fukushima or Chernobyl nuclear disaster can overwhelm thousands of people, with high levels of radiation. Although it is safer than non-renewables, it still poses and security threat, with the by-products being able to be used as nuclear weapons.
The Sun, with almost an endless supply of energy, uses a process called fusion. Just as the name suggests, fusion involves fusing two atoms. Although it is experimental at this stage, with more technology and infrastructure, it would provide the world with endless energy. It has two major drawbacks though. With our technology available today, we can only make temperatures to fuse deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen. Deuterium is widely available, while we only have 20 kgs of tritium in the entire world, mostly in nuclear weapons. Also, since we have to produce the plasma for fusion to occur, it would require more work.
The main question that I will be focusing on is How Do We Use Fusion Energy on Earth with Easily Available Plasma?
How I Did My Research
As a study/research project, the procedure doesn't really apply, but I still want to share my method of thinking, researching, and analyzing.
How I assessed the reliability of my sources
- Check the author or organization that made it
- Compare and contrast with other sources
- Try to get research from well known and trustworthy websites and videos
- Get someone to review the research such as a parent or teacher
Collecting plasma and/or tritium from a reliable source would be the first thing
- 1. Understand the properties of plasma, and specifically the plasma required for fusion energy
- 2. Find the most reliable sources of plasma on or near Earth
- 3. Construct a method of extracting and storing the plasma, along with a way to store our energy
1. Understand the properties of plasma, and the plasma required for fusion energy
Before I researched and tackled the problems with fusion energy, I know that fusion required plasma, the 4th state of matter. Plasma is like gas, but with properties far different from gas. If I don't understand the process of fusion, and importantly, the properties of plasma required for fusion, then finding another method or source would be inaccurate. The process of fusion, in-depth would also be fundamental to my research since every little detail could mean more later on.
2. Find the most reliable sources of plasma on or near Earth
My next step was to find the most logical and reliable sources of plasma on or near Earth. The plasma would need to be large-scale and easily available. On or near-Earth is also very important, because if the extraction or collection of plasma is more expensive, especially with far-away sources, and its total energy output is low, then it would be a waste of resources and money.
3. Construct a method of extracting and storing the plasma, along with a way to store our energy
My last and more important step was to construct a way for storage and extraction. Even if we found a source of plasma, if the storage or extraction is extremely complicated, then the source won't be very helpful.
Although my method of researching isn't an experimental procedure, it can help guide my way through researching, rather than random bits of research that are irrelevant.
What is fusion?
Fusion, like nuclear fission, is a process that gives us energy. Atoms are always moving, according to the particle theory of matter. An atom consists of protons, neutrons, and electrons, each with a positive, negative, or neutral charge. Heat makes particles move faster, while fast-moving particles produce heat.
Plasma is a state of matter, that is like gas, but also ionized and its atoms are separated into protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons have a positive charge, so it repels other protons. When the plasma is heated to a certain point, the particles are moving so fast that collisions are inevitable. Protons overcome natural repulsion and collide, fusing into a heavier element.
During the process of fusion, mass is lost, and energy is gained. When two hydrogen atoms collide, they fuse into helium, and the atomic mass of the fused element is lower than what the atomic mass would be when you add the mass of each hydrogen atom. The lost mass is converted to energy. Einstein's Equivalence of Mass and Energy formula, E = mc2 explains this scenario.
The formula means Energy = Mass x Speed of Light2.
Many scientists believe that fusion energy might not ever be achieved effectively enough to power the world, but since fusion has already been achieved on a smaller scale on Earth, with plasma created, if we make a few modifications, then it could be successful.
What is plasma?
Plasma is the fourth state of matter, which is much like gas. As gas is continuously heated, the atoms start to ionize and they get ripped apart. Since the atoms are ripped apart, there are now positive and negative charges in the gas, making it react to electrical and magnetic fields. For plasma to fuse, the needed criteria are:
- High temperatures
- Sufficient Plasma Density
- Sufficient Confinement
which is how plasma in the Sun is also fused. The Sun has is massive, with gravity holding together the hydrogen and helium plasma. The pressure of gravity and all the mass on top causes fusion. To replicate that, we need temperatures close to the surface of the sun.
What Others Have Achieved So Far:
- The 1930s – Scientists discovered nuclear fusion
- The 1940s – Scientists researched how to create fusion on Earth, and what that energy could be used for
- The 1950s – Scientists were convinced that fusion had no military applications
- The 1960s – Scientists developed inertial confinement, which was using lasers to confine the plasma
- The 1970s – Magnetic confinement was developed
- The 1980s and 90s – Billions of dollars were spent on creating more advanced Tokamaks
What are extractable sources of plasma on Earth?
Thesis: If there is sufficient and usable plasma in CMEs, then we could extract and contain the plasma using magnetic fields because it would make the fusion process easier and more durable. It would make the whole thermonuclear fusion process less costly and it may give us a source of tritium and/or other isotopes of hydrogen that aren't available on Earth. The plasma being catapulted at Earth may contain hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. The Sun is a main-sequence star that is composed of hydrogen and helium. Although samples of the sun have never been directly observed, we can infer that there would be at least trace amounts of tritium, which could be beneficial to us.
On Earth, we have two natural phenomena that can give us plasma. One of them is lightning, and the other is CMEs. Lightning lasts for only a couple of seconds at most, so extracting it would be complicated and challenging. Also, lighting only occurs during thunderstorms and that only during summer or warmer times of the year. CMEs or Coronal Mass Ejections are much more reliable.
Coronal Mass Ejections or CMEs are caused by the Sun. The Sun, as a very big body of matter in our Solar System, is made up of hydrogen and helium in the state plasma. Plasma is electrically charged, because of how its protons, neutrons, and electrons are freely roaming. Electric charges create magnetism (magnetic forces), so the plasma is shaped by the Sun's magnetic field, while the plasma creates the magnetism. Since the Sun is a star, the plasma is constantly fusing and moving, which causes the magnetic field to be inconsistent. This inconsistency releases large amounts of plasma into our Solar System.
Since plasma is affected by magnetism, the plasma directed at Earth is diverted to the magnetic poles, the Arctic and Antarctic. The plasma particles interact with the oxygen and nitrogen in our atmosphere, which produces beautiful lights called Auroras. The Earth's atmosphere filters the x-rays and plasma before they reach the ground, so the radiation wouldn't reach us. CMEs are more reliable and worth experimenting with compared to other sources of plasma since our Sun is doing thermonuclear fusion using the same plasma. The Sun is the best source of plasma as it conducts fusion, and it may also contain tritium and other sources of hydrogen, which we can't confirm until further testing.
Since CMEs provide us with a reliable source of plasma, our next step would be to collect it.
Picture Retrieved From What Causes the Earth's Magnetic Field? (scienceabc.com)
Collecting Plasma From CMEs
How the Fusion Reactor At I.T.E.R. (Magnetic Confinement) Works:
- Air and other impurities are removed from the donut-shaped vessel where fusion takes place, to make a vacuum
- Magnetic coils are used to keep the plasma confined
- Deuterium fuel is introduced and electrical currents ionize the plasma
- Ionized plasma causes the particles to collide, producing heat, and the heat makes collisions
- Advanced heating methods cause fusion temperatures
- The particles overcome their repulsion and they fuse
How is the energy from fusion collected?
Electrons and protons have electrical charges, while neutrons are neutral, which means that the magnetic coils do not control it. The neutrons collide with the vessel walls, producing heat. The heat is used to heat water, which produces steam, and then converted into energy.
Criteria For the Plasma Collector
- 100 GJ Magnetic Power – To be able to work for long without losing magnetism
- The plasma will be diverted to the magnets due to their strength
- The magnets must be reliable and durable, to survive the journey into the atmosphere, collect plasma using their magnetic field, and return back to the surface
- Once collected, the plasma needs to confined in a vacuum, which will be easy since the exosphere doesn’t contain much air
- The plasma collector will have to be a portable fusion reactor that will be capable of collecting plasma in the air
- Be able to concentrate the plasma enough for fusion to occur
Steps Of Operation
- The plasma collector needs to able to travel high up into the atmosphere to collect plasma using magnetic forces
- Then, after confining the plasma, it needs to return to the surface
- It would be ideal if the plasma collector can also serve as a part fusion reactor on the surface, to save energy and costs of transporting plasma from the plasma collector to the fusion reactor
Factors Influencing the Plasma Collector
- Atmospheric pressure
- The magnetosphere of the Earth
- Friction with air
- Availability of plasma through CMEs (one every five days on average during calmer times)
For More Information On Ideas For plasma collection, I contacted CBC Quirks and Quarks Science Program. This is the reply I received:
Thank you for your message regarding your science fair project on harnessing plasma from the Earth's atmosphere. It is a very innovative idea.
You are right that the sun delivers a tremendous amount of energy to our atmosphere that we see as the northern lights, but that energy is spread out over a very large area. The challenge for you is how to gather that up and concentrate it into a smaller space so it is more dense and we can put it to work. As you know, concentrating plasmas into a smaller space has been a huge challenge for fusion reactors.
You will need a very large energy collector of some kind. that can reach up very high into the atmosphere to gather the energy and concentrate it somehow. I will leave that challenge up to you.
We have the same issue with other forms of energy such as solar and wind, which are again plentiful, but spread out across the surface of the Earth so we need huge solar farms that cover a lot of land or many giant windmills to produce enough electricity for a city.
I hope that helps, good luck with your project.
Host, Quirks & Quarks
CBC Radio Canada
From the email above, I considered the ability to concentrate the plasma it collects as a part of the criteria.
The Abilities of the Proposed Machine
- The machine must be able to collect plasma in the atmosphere near the poles
- The machine should be around the size of Tokamak by I.T.E.R. but also light enough to travel into the atmosphere
- The objective of the machine is to use magnetic coils, like Tokamak, to contain the plasma
- Plasma must be confined closely together to conduct fusion
- The machine should be able to collect plasma and serve as a part of a fusion reactor or a fusion reactor, to save the costs of transporting plasma
Everything has some sort of limitations. Below are the limitations or obstacles that this machine will face during construction or operation.
- Cost - The proposed machine needs sufficient investments in order to be effectively built
- Success Rate - There is no certainty that this experiment will be successful, although it is greatly worth trying
- Availability of plasma from CMEs - CMEs aren't something that happens all the time, only when the Sun is active
- Support from the government - Not all projects or experiments are funded by the government, some will have to be done privately
Picture from Assembling the machine (iter.org) - Captions, explanations, and words by me
My thesis proved to be accurate. The Sun is capable of fusion because of its immense mass and temperature, and sometimes, it showers our magnetic poles with precious plasma. My research proves that there is a readily available source of plasma near Earth, and we need to create a technology to capture it, most ideally magnetic confinement. Someone would find this research and idea interesting and innovative because it could change how we make energy if we could develop the technology needed. We could in fact use that plasma and create low-impact energy in the future if the idea gets developed and advanced.
The plasma being catapulted at us could include the tritium we need, which is very significant since we only need to make deuterium into plasma. Scientists have been studying this topic and have been attempting to do a nuclear fusion on a large scale for commercial use, such as I.T.E.R. and other organizations. People are interested in this topic for decades, to produce environmentally-safe and effective alternatives. Canada would be ideal for collecting plasma from the atmosphere, because of how close it is to the magnetic poles and its availability of plasma in the atmosphere. This is evident because of the beautiful auroras up north. If nuclear fusion was achieved on a large scale so that it would be commercially available, it would change energy on Earth forever.
My next steps will be to meet up with some mechanical engineers and astrophysicists to create a workable blueprint that can be built. Although it isn’t certain that this idea will work, it is hugely worth trying this idea, since anything in science is only confirmed after experimenting and discovery. An even more effective collector would be able to collect plasma near other planets or places in the Solar System that are closer to the Sun.
With a small collector, we could do tests and experiments, to see if the plasma from CMEs is compatible with our current fusion reactors. If the plasma is a good source of deuterium and tritium, then it will be an effective way of fusion. With all the background information collected on fusion, experimenting is the next step. During the experiment, we could research how effective collecting plasma from CMEs is and see if they are reliable for large-scale production.
If these experiments were carried out and they are successful, then more companies will be interested in investing. With an easy plasma source, we could be able to make fusion our primary source of energy, one that is carbon-free, and provides almost zero waste. Scientists would find this idea revolutionary since we would be able to create energy for generations without worry.
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